Why We Need More Third Culture Kids

May 16, 2019
7:52 AM

By Michelle Kinder

Not unlike the nearly 20 million immigrant children in the United States, I was a “third culture kid”—a term that anthropologists coined in the 1950s to describe children born in one country, to parents who came from another.

Although my third culture experiences were pretty different than many we read about in the United States, the common thread is that these early experiences teach about the value of multiple points of view, which is something we need to magnify and megaphone, especially as the U.S. becomes a more diverse, global culture.

I was born in Guatemala in 1972 to white parents from Texas. From birth, most everywhere I looked, there were two or more ways to do just about everything. These formative years got me thinking very early about identity and belonging. When I was in Guatemala, I was at home, but I looked like a visitor.  When I was in the United States, I looked like I belonged, but I felt totally out of place. This made me acutely aware of how many assumptions we make about each other based on outer appearances. It fed in me an intense desire to better understand inner worlds—my own and other people’s. That’s almost certainly what led me to later study theater and then psychology.

As a third culture kid, I internalized the belief that there’s never one right way to do something. That means, I grew up in a perpetual state of genuine curiosity, holding loosely what I defined as normal and appreciating the texture and richness of being at diverse tables. Anaïs Nin once said, “It is a sign of great inner insecurity to be hostile to the unfamiliar.” My early years taught me to revel in and seek out, on the friendliest of terms, the unfamiliar. The millions of third culture kids in the United States today can offer the same, which can help us all cope with our constantly changing world.

As a third culture kid, you learn to observe the best and the worst in people —and hopefully gravitate toward the latter. For example, in Guatemala, my parents were missionaries, so I spent a lot of time in church, and saw the best and the worst. The worst was the pious colonizing, soul-collecting aspect, which I quickly rejected.

But even in that troubling context, I appreciated the values I saw in many, including my parents, Herband and Judy Billings. From the time I was very small, I  noticed there was something different in their approach, even before I could put words to it. They appreciated the give-and-take between cultures and taught us to do the same.  My gentle giant of a dad —he was seven feet tall— would often preach about his mechanic, Don Miguel, and his barber, Don Francis, whose lives changed because of the church, and how those changes rippled in the community. But he would also talk about how our lives changed by virtue of knowing them.

Third culture kids know that life isn’t black and white, and that every interaction changes both parties. Lilla Watson, an indigenous Australian artist captured this perfectly in a quote I think about almost every day: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

This third culture perspective —openness, curiosity, taking the best of both worlds, not privileging one way or one culture over another— contrasts starkly with the escalating tendency to retreat to our “tribes.”  David Brooks warns of this growing tribalism in book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life. And he isn’t the only one sounding the alarm on people growing more and more rigid in the belief that they (and those like them) are good and anyone who is different is bad or dangerous. Amy Chua, in her book, Political Tribes, lays out a strong argument that our way forward as a country must include moving away from the demonizing of other and the equally tone-deaf ignoring and dismissing of differences. Instead, she urges us to see differences and celebrate them, allowing ourselves to be enriched by diversity instead of threatened by it.

As things in our world continue to get more complex, tribalism can seem like a rational response. It can feel safer to hear only voices that confirm our views and our choices. But that leads to the sort of toxic divisions we’re seeing in our national dialogue.

I can’t help but hope that this lean toward tribalism and blanket judgment of “other” is not truly what most people actually want, but rather a sign that we’ve put fear in charge. And when fear is in charge, rather than openness, curiosity, and love, we’re blinded to the beauty inherent in our differences. When love is in charge, we can widen the circle and align around our common humanity.

I can’t think of a better invitation to a different future than poet Danielle Dolby’s “the way out of the darkness is when we can look across the table and find our face in another’s.”  In other words, we need third culture kids in our country to feel empowered to lead the way and shine their unique lens on dark corners that seem to be getting darker. And we need them now.


Michelle Kinder is a licensed professional counselor and a nationally recognized leader in social-emotional health and mindful leadership. In partnership with Stagen Leadership Academy, she is the founder of the Social Change Leadership Program for women. Based in Dallas, she is a Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project.